Smartphone users now have on average something like 40 apps each. There’s an app for everything and one swipe of the finger is usually all it takes to download them.
While this is great for our entertainment, enjoyment and work productivity, these apps and our phones also pose a privacy risk. Smartphones collect and share all kinds of data about the user and their activities. Think about the functions of your phone and you’ll get an idea of the kind of data – GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, accelerometer, battery, app usage, IP address, compass, memory and more.
Then there’s metadata. A study of smartphone users by Stanford University in the US last year found that phone call metadata alone revealed an astonishing amount of detail about individuals, including medical information and hobbies. It demonstrates how in isolation some of this smartphone data may seem to be of little or no use but when it is put together it can be quite powerful, especially in the wrong hands.
But how many people can honestly say they know whether some of the apps they download are accessing, using – and maybe even sharing – any of this data? On Android devices, for example, apps can even talk to each other and share information.
There are, of course, many legitimate uses of location data and activities for marketing and advertising and that is only going to increase. You only have to look at technology such as iBeacons, for example, to see how companies will be able to use location data to target customers in real-time with personalised promotions and offers when they are passing by with their smartphones.
Airports are one location we are already seeing this. The airline EasyJet is planning to install iBeacons at some airports in France and the UK that will trigger notifications to passenger mobiles at various locations around the terminal such as check-in, bag drop and security. And Visa has announced it will use the location data on a smartphone to enable cardholders to automatically let their banks know where they are in an attempt to cut card fraud. In all these cases informed consent to use the data is rewarded with benefits for the user.
But there are also risks about this data being misused. A study last year found one in three Android smartphone apps upload personal information to third party companies without specifically letting the user know.
What can people do about this to protect their privacy better? Here are some simple tips everyone can follow to protect their privacy.
- Don’t use location services – apart from essential uses such as navigation, switch location services off and don’t give permission to apps to access it.
- Be careful what apps you download and check the terms and conditions to see what data an app might want to access on your phone. If you are using WhatsApp or Facebook, for example, they request access to your microphone and 99 per cent of people just accept that.
- Disable access to your phone book, contacts and calendar entries. If apps are trying to access these it poses a risk. This isn’t always straightforward. On an Android device, for example, every app is able to talk to another app so it can be sometimes be complex to allow or disallow access.
- Consider using an extra line of defence such as an app firewall. There are several available (disclaimer: we have a free on in the Android app store) and these send you an alert any time an app tries to communicate with another app and asks for your permission to allow that.